On a recent Thursday night at the SFJAZZ Center, pianist Kev Choice was playing alone in the center’s Joe Henderson Lab — the club-like space that fronts Franklin Street. He was providing accompaniment for Martin Luther McCoy, who was singing by himself in the center’s cavernous Robert N. Miner Auditorium. Online, 1,200 people were watching Choice and McCoy put on a live, maskless concert of original material and interpretations of such standards as “You’ve Got It Bad Girl.”
The pair played in separate halls, with SFJAZZ staff filming via remote-controlled cameras, in order to abide by San Francisco’s strict COVID-19 regulations. Those rules allow maskless concerts by a single performer (or a duo living together in the same household) — but require masks if other personnel in the room are from outside the performers’ immediate bubble.
While the pandemic prevents fans from attending live concerts, SFJAZZ is working to keep audiences engaged with streaming programs like these. In an effort to conjure an in-person feel, SFJAZZ piped in applause as a masked McCoy approached the auditorium from an inside walkway and a masked doorman ushered him in. The supplementary bonus of any IRL concert — people watching — was approximated by footage of mask-wearing pedestrians who happened to be walking along Franklin Street at the time of the performance.
It was a far more polished livestream than the kinds of low-budget productions music-lovers first tuned into last spring — although it is certainly no substitute for the programming that once sustained music organizers, performers, and their fans.
But given SFJAZZ’s stated mission of supporting a vibrant and accessible local music scene, it is incumbent upon the organization to find ways to reach the community, come hell, highwater, or pandemic.
And so, in addition to the Choice and McCoy show, SFJAZZ has a whole slate of offerings planned for the coming months. The schedule includes more live-streamed concerts, a “Fridays at Five” series, and making its video archive of concerts available on-demand. SFJAZZ’s aim is to make musical lemonade out of a lemon year by growing its online audience and setting the foundation for a future where online programming plays a crucial role in SFJAZZ’s outreach, even after our city’s long-awaited “return to normal.”
Indeed, the pandemic pushed both SFJAZZ and the San Francisco Symphony to reimagine how audiences experience their music — and to innovate ways to attract new audiences as they retain their traditional Bay Area fan bases.
“Necessity is the mother of invention,” says Randall Kline, SFJAZZ’s founder and executive artistic director. “How can we do things that keep us connected to our communities?”
“We were up against some extraordinary rules and restrictions that forced us to think up content ideas that we had never even dreamt about,” says Mark Hanson, CEO of the San Francisco Symphony and a trained cellist.
Before the pandemic, SFJAZZ’s annual revenues were about $20 million. Close to 60 percent of that revenue, or between $11-$12 million, has disappeared. In its stead, the organization has managed to generate nearly $1 million from a combination of digital membership sign-ups, live stream sign-ups, donations, and other internet offerings. More than 13,000 people have signed up for digital SFJAZZ memberships, on top of the 14,000 regular members that SFJAZZ had before the pandemic. (Digital membership costs $5 a month and $50 annually.) Between 1,500 and 3,500 people view SFJAZZ’s Fridays at Five series, which began in March of 2020 and features archived concerts and live online chats with musicians like Herbie Hancock.
SFJAZZ has also heavily promoted its “50/50 fund,” which asks fans to essentially tip the performers and SFJAZZ’s workers and which now provides between $5,000 and $10,000 a week in crucial funding to the organization’s staff and performers. All told, SFJAZZ’s online viewers have tipped more than $500,000 since the pandemic began. (Tribute concerts to raise money for saxophonist Wayne Shorter, to help pay his medical costs, have raised more than $150,000.) SFJAZZ has also received $1.4 million in Paycheck Protection Program loans, which the U.S. government is giving businesses to help reduce layoffs and stem dramatic financial losses. Even so, SFJAZZ still had to resort to two layoffs and 11 furloughs last year.
SFJAZZ was envisioning digital programming when it opened its Franklin Street building in 2013, and it soon embedded a state-of-the-art audio-video-production system that required minimal personnel but would still produce unique footage, so the organization’s series of digital offerings were already well in place before the pandemic.
“We’re competing against YouTube and every other video, and millions of other concert videos for nothing,” Kline says, “so what would distinguish ours from others?”
The San Francisco Symphony studied SFJAZZ’s online model, and the formats of symphony and arts-related organizations around the country, before launching its “SFSymphony+” program last month. Subscribers may view SF Symphony concerts that have been especially tailored to at-home audiences. These aren’t just replica versions of traditional symphony concerts from Davies Symphony Hall. The symphony’s very first digital offering, “Nostalgia: Esa-Pekka Salonen,” takes place in a warehouse environment — with swooping camera angles, artistic use of video screens, and other techniques — and adds a different dimension to the San Francisco symphony’s repertoire. It also mirrors the symphony’s pre-pandemic, late-night “SoundBox” events, which have been going since 2014 in the warehouse rehearsal space adjacent to Davies Symphony Hall.
The very first image that viewers see in “Nostalgia: Esa-Pekka Salonen” is not Salonen, who’s the symphony’s acclaimed new music director, or any of the musicians performing Conjure, which is Freya Waley-Cohen’s beautifully dissonant and haunting composition. Instead, viewers see an artistic, black-and-white vision of a tree. Its leaves pass before a camera, as they hear the sounds of violinist Yun Chu, violist Jonathan Vinocour, and cellist Jill Rachuy Brindel (all of whom are wearing masks). The tree is on a video screen that’s on stage and displays other imagery as the trio moves ahead with Waley-Cohen’s piece. Sometimes, the imagery appears on the performer’s arms and clothing, and the visual editing frequently interchanges the musicians with the screen’s moving, elliptical scenes of trees, water drops, and other outdoor vistas.
With SFSymphony+, Conjure becomes a musical dreamscape — a multimedia presentation that almost certainly would not have been produced under traditional circumstances. Had the world been spared from the novel coronavirus, Salonen — who took the reins from former S.F. Symphony director Michael Tilson Thomas as the start of the 2020-21 season — would have been leading his musicians in the large, baroque setting of Davies Symphony Hall.
“How do you introduce a new music director and eight collaborative partners at the beginning of their tenure without the ability to have more than 12 people in a space even as large as Davies Symphony Hall?” Hanson asks.
Hanson is referencing city regulations that a Department of Emergency Management spokesperson explained this way: “Up to 12 personnel can participate in a live streaming entertainment production with no audience or spectators. If anyone is singing or playing a wind or brass instrument, that person must be in an isolation booth or separate room from the others. The entertainment venue operator must submit a proposed health and safety plan to the health officer if they want to broadcast an event requiring more than 12 personnel.”
The show must go on, though. And for SFSymphony+, which costs $120 for the season, the symphony is featuring original SoundBox concerts; episodes of the symphony’s “CURRENTS” series, which examines classical music’s intersection with the music of India, Zimbabwe, and other cultures, and other programming. For the first season, the symphony is giving complimentary memberships to 2020-2021 season subscribers and SF Symphony donors who’ve contributed $250 or more. Individual episodes are available for sale, and some programming is available for everyone’s free viewing, just as SFJAZZ also offers free viewing of select programs (like its recent panel discussion on race and jazz that featured Angela Davis and other well-known figures).
Hanson says SFSymphony+ has 6,300 active subscribers, the majority of whom received complimentary subscriptions. But Hanson says he wants the symphony’s new online programming to draw new, long-term audiences, including those who may have shunned the symphony’s music from the assumption it only features “beloved works” from earlier eras.
In this way, Hanson and Kline are navigating very similar territory: Figuring out how to draw new online audiences to the music they’re offering while keeping their core on-site audiences. For both SFJAZZ and the San Francisco Symphony, it’s not a dichotomous situation. They want both kinds of crowds.
That’s because online concerts can and do attract sizably more people — including those outside the Bay Area and even globally — than can fit in a physical San Francisco space. For SFJAZZ’s Choice-McCoy concert, about 240 of the 1,200 who watched online were from outside the Bay Area. SFSymphony+’s programming, meanwhile, drew 40,000 views in a recent week, with 19,000 for its “Nostalgia” episode, and tens of thousands more views over several days for its Chinese New Year’s Day programming.
The potential of online programming keeps the San Francisco Symphony and SFJAZZ optimistic about their musical place in people’s lives, even while the pandemic has undermined their short-term financial bottom lines in ways they could never have imagined one year ago. The San Francisco Symphony, whose normal annual budget is $85 million and whose reduced 2021 budget is $48 million, received a PPP loan of $7.77 million to survive the pandemic and continue paying salaries. It’s also operating this year on funds generated through philanthropy and its endowment, Hanson says.
“This (new programming) is not going to solve our financial challenges alone,” Hanson says. “We’re essentially operating this season without earned revenue.”
Adds Kline: “When we come out of this thing, hopefully everyone has managed to get through this crisis, and we can return to some semblance of normal.”
Jonathan Curiel is a contributing writer. Twitter @WriterJCuriel